The decedent at the heart of this probate battle, Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis, was a Greek immigrant and self-made millionaire who had started as a dishwasher in Canada and ended up in Florida, where he built an empire of restaurants, hotels and cruise ships used for offshore casino gambling. His 2001 gangland-style murder was allegedly linked to the $147.5 million sale of his company, SunCruz Casinos, to a partnership including disgraced Republican über lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Apparently Boulis wasn’t very fond of his wife: he completely cut her out of his estate. Lucky for her Boulis died a Florida resident, so she was able to claim a 30% share of his estate under F.S. § 732.201. That’s the good news. The bad news is that she may have to fork over close to half of her share in estate taxes.

Estate Tax Allocation:

In large estates the elephant in the room is always: “who’s going to pay the estate tax?” Considering that the top marginal estate tax rate is 45%, whose share of the estate gets used to pay this tax bill is a huge big deal. For example, if Boulis’s widow was awarded a $10 million elective share, how the estate-tax allocation question is answered could mean the difference between her walking away with $10 million or $6.5 million!

Usually zero estate taxes are allocated to a widow’s elective share because of the unlimited estate-tax marital deduction. However, Boulis’s widow wasn’t a U.S. citizen, so the normal rules don’t apply. But even for non-citizens, it’s pretty easy to avoid paying any estate tax by creating a qualified domestic trust or “QDOT” to hold the widow’s share of the estate. For reasons not explained by the 4th DCA, this hasn’t happened in this case.

Boulis v. Blackburn, — So.3d —-, 2009 WL 2382358 (Fla. 4th DCA Aug 05, 2009)

Having failed to dodge the estate-tax bullet by relying on the federal tax code provisions governing QDOTs, Boulis’s widow fell back on two state-level statutory-construction arguments involving F.S. 733.817, Florida’s estate-tax allocation statute.

[1]  Is an elective share ever liable for estate taxes?

Because elective-share assets going to a surviving spouse almost never trigger any estate tax, F.S. 733.817 doesn’t have a specific clause addressing those rare instances where a tax is triggered. Boulis’s widow argued this omission means taxes are NEVER allocated to elective share assets. Wrong answer says the 4th DCA, here’s why:

Appellant argues that certain probate code sections relieve her elective share of any liability for estate taxes. Section 733.817, Florida Statutes (2000), governs the apportionment of estate taxes. Subsections (5)(a), (5)(b), and (5)(c) apply to the apportionment of taxes on property passing under the decedent’s will, property passing under the terms of any trust created in the decedent’s will and homestead property, respectively.

*     *     *

“The purpose of section 733.817 is to ensure that all estate and inheritance taxes are shared on a ratable basis by the beneficiaries receiving the property subject to those taxes.” Tarbox v. Palmer, 564 So.2d 1106, 1108 (Fla. 4th DCA 1990). As appellant is not entitled to the marital deduction on her elective share, then that elective share is subject to tax. The net tax on an elective share is not apportioned under paragraphs (5)(a), (5)(b), or (5)(c), and it is not otherwise excluded. Therefore, the net tax attributable to the elective share is apportionable under section 733.817(5)(f).

[2]  But what if the decedent waived the normal tax allocations rules?

Boulis’s widow then argued that even if her share of the estate was taxable, her husband’s will trumped application of the Florida tax allocation statute because it directed that the payment of taxes attributable to property NOT passing under his will (such as her elective share) must be paid from property passing under his will (read: tax everyone else but the widow). This allocation argument has a long and storied past here in Florida. Unfortunately for Boulis’s widow, by now it’s pretty well settled that the language in the will has to be extremely specific for this argument to work. In this case it wasn’t, so she lost this argument as well.

In his will, the decedent “direct[s][his] Personal Representative to pay out of the property which would otherwise become a part of the Residuary Estate, all estate, inheritance, transfer and succession taxes, including interest and penalties thereon, which may be lawfully assessed by reason of my death.” Appellant argues that pursuant to section 733.817(5)(h)1., Florida Statutes (2000), this provision of the will directs appellees to pay the taxes on the elective share out of the residuary estate. The trial court held that section 733.817(5)(h)4., Florida Statutes, is the applicable provision and, under that section, the decedent has not effectively directed the payment of taxes attributable to property not passing under the governing instrument from property passing under the governing instrument.

Section 733.817(5)(h), Florida Statutes, provides in pertinent part:

(h)1. To be effective as a direction for payment of tax in a manner different from that provided in this section, the governing instrument must direct that the tax be paid from assets that pass pursuant to that governing instrument, except as provided in this section.

*     *     *

4. For a direction in a governing instrument to be effective to direct payment of taxes attributable to property not passing under the governing instrument from property passing under the governing instrument, the governing instrument must expressly refer to this section, or expressly indicate that the property passing under the governing instrument is to bear the burden of taxation for property not passing under the governing instrument. A direction in the governing instrument to the effect that all taxes are to be paid from property passing under the governing instrument whether attributable to property passing under the governing instrument or otherwise shall be effective to direct the payment from property passing under the governing instrument of taxes attributable to property not passing under the governing instrument.

In In re Estate of McClaran, 811 So.2d 799 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002), the Second District addressed the issue of whether the direction in the decedent’s will was effective under section 733.817(5)(h) to override the statutory method of apportionment of estate taxes. McClaran’s will provided in pertinent part:

My personal representative shall pay from the residue of my estate … estate and inheritance taxes assessed by reason of my death, except that the amount, if any, by which the estate and inheritance taxes shall be increased as a result of the inclusion of property in which I may have a qualifying income interest for life or over which I may have a power of appointment shall be paid by the person holding or receiving that property.

Id. at 800 (emphasis in original).

*     *     *

Just as in McClaran, the direction in the decedent’s will does not include an express indication that the property passing under the will is to bear the burden of taxation for property not passing under the will.